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The Big Story: The CEO “Talking Trap”

CEOs, you might want to bite your tongues.

A new survey from the Brunswick Group says you’re overestimating the necessity and effectiveness of your organization’s communication on social issues. Yes, there’s enormous pressure on organizations to respond to everything that’s happening. But doing so without careful consideration can come off to the public as inauthentic. “The effort may come from a place of earnest engagement, but it is not being perceived that way,” the report observes. So if you choose to talk the talk, your organization needs to walk the walk.

What it Means for Your Health System

For leaders, the decision to speak is fraught. The Brunswick Group refers to it as “the talking trap.”

Basically, while corporate intentions around speaking up on hot social issues may be well-intentioned, audiences are disregarding these efforts due to “the broad alienation that most Americans (Democrats and Republicans) feel toward people and institutions of power.” If communications about an issue are poorly received, there’s the potential for them to be reputationally harmful.

Yet at the same time, we know there are times when leaders do need to speak. That’s part of being a leader, isn’t it? And with everything going on in the world, the range of topics on which they might be asked to weigh in is wider than ever.

So then how to do it effectively? The Brunswick Group report closes with excellent general recommendations to avoid the talking trap. Read them all – after you finish this note with ideas tailored for healthcare leaders and marcom officials.

It all boils down to integrated communications, similar to integrated care teams. The core structural issue is to know who’s in what lane and to coordinate appropriately. When clinicians aren’t aligned, they step on each other’s toes, information gets lost and patient care suffers. Similarly, communications efforts can be derailed by too many people trying to offer their own version of the message or offer it at the wrong time. When dealing with sensitive topics like social issues, the results can be damaging.

Consider these steps to ensure your message is received with the authenticity intended.

  1. Speak well – within your lane. You and your organization are experts on healthcare, and the public does want to hear from you on the things you know. Previous Jarrard Inc. surveys have shown that the public expects providers to speak up on healthcare topics. So before getting deeply involved in a range of issues, ensure that you are clear and consistent, firm yet humble, on the topics directly related to your work. 
  2. Do well – within your lane. Back up your message with actions. Better yet, back up your actions with your message. The Brunswick Group emphasizes the importance of tangible and significant investment (financial or otherwise) in causes related to the issue. For hospitals, that’s likely community partnerships and charity care. It’s also your work to support employees, professional development opportunities, and defined, financially-backed programs to help close racial disparities within the organization. Your mission is strong, so make sure the work you do reflects it.
  3. Recognize that there is more than one lane. “Health” encompasses so many issues, and we’re seeing a growing conversation about how social issues are health issues. Granted, we just suggested building credibility by staying in your lane. But that’s a lot harder when your lane is very wide – or when there are multiple lanes. Basically, your team needs to define the terms and come to some internal consensus on how you view the continuum of health and the myriad factors that contribute to it.
  4. Define who can and should be speaking out in each lane. One way to handle the complexity and the expectations is pretty standard: Break the work up into manageable bites. Within your organization you have nurses, administrators, physicians, social workers, care navigators and so many others. Find the right individuals within these roles to talk about the issues most closely aligned with their work. Social workers can talk about mental health or homelessness. Leadership can talk about the delivery of care to different communities. With people in the right spot, there’s minimal stepping on toes.
  5. Coordinate, prepare and activate. Whether it’s one person who will be speaking or five, define the expectations. For example, what’s appropriate for people to say as representatives of your organization – versus on their own time? As always, bring in outside voices like community leaders to help inform your thinking on the issue and your approach. Set up mechanisms for feedback – even if it’s uncomfortable. That in itself goes a long way towards demonstrating your authenticity and commitment. Finally, go out and speak – humbly, kindly, quietly but firmly – acknowledging what you know to be true and what you’re still learning, as well as how you and your organization are responding.

This piece was originally published over the weekend in our Sunday Quick Think newsletter. Fill out the form to get that in your inbox every week.